On a rare day of leisure a few weeks back, when I was busy cultivating the art of doing nothing by staring intently out of the window from the depths of the bed, my mind alighted on a tiny black speck swaying lazily on the white dazzle of the afternoon sky. Framed by the window, it circled, bobbed, vanished, and then glided back again, like a free spirit waltzing with itself. Thinking that it was one joyous kite, I focused my eyes on it in the hope of feeling the secret of its happiness, and realized that it was a kite alright, but not of the corporeal kind. A rush of thoughts and I knew that Viswakarma Puja, which marks the start of the kite-flying season, has come and gone and Durga Puja was round the corner. The sky may still be weepy, with purple blotches all over its face, but somehow the light is changing as the sun turns on its axis to usher in the sparkling days of Sharat.
Having chosen to live without a television set or a radio (since they are enemies of the silence I love), I look to chance happenings like the kite slow-dancing on an altering sky to tell me about time’s passage. There are other markers too to make the job easier. Making my way through the rough and tumble of the city at night, I step unexpectedly into a deserted street and there is the soft smell of shiuli crouched in the corner, like the Little Match Girl.
The floating fragrance brings back images — of wild shiulis lying scattered on ancient granites, the orange of their stalks crushed by the wheels of passing vehicles to make the surrounding red earth crimson and wet — from forgotten Puja vacations spent in the now forbidden Ghatshila. Back in those days of childhood, the sickle moon appearing in the sky after Mahalaya would be the cue for leaving Calcutta, and studies, behind and heading for the hills. Rummaging through lost time, I am surprised that the sliced moon appears with frustrating regularity in the sky in the countdown to the pujas, while the holidays, and the people — led by my father — who breathed life into them, are now gone.
But other things too have remained maddeningly constant to remind me that Durga has started preparing for her journey. The wait at the Gariahat traffic signal gets longer with each passing day, as the crowds armed with shopping hampers swell and swirl. While I sit sandwiched between co-passengers in autorickshaws at the Gariahat crossing, reluctantly, I take stock of the world around me. There are placards advertising various pujas in south Calcutta sprouting from almost every building. One of these, which promises neel-sadaye ek tukro Bhawanipore (a piece of Bhawanipore in blue and white), has amazingly combined obeisance to the immortal goddess and the mortal one at the head of the state. Blinded by the din of traffic, I close my eyes to wonder whether the goddess would be seen wagging a finger instead of brandishing a spear and placing a chappal-clad foot on the head of Mahishasur.